If I had a do over with my cat and dog, I'd focus on maintaining their healthy immune system: 1) switch from processed pet food to a species appropriate diet; 2) stop annual vaccinations and the over-use of antibiotics; 3) create a sensory-rich, environmentally clean habitat; and 4) have plenty of physical fun.
These are the cornerstones of vibrant health and animals that thrive, including human beings.
But what diet is right? Unsurprisingly, this seems to be controversial.
On the one side are proponents of species appropriate diet. Their rationale goes like this: our dogs evolved from wolves. What do wolves eat?
Raw, meaty bones.
The idea of feeding your companion animals raw, meaty bones was first proposed by Ian Billinghurst in the 1980's with the unfortunate acronym of B.A.R.F.
My veterinary training had taught me that a diet based on raw meaty bones and household scraps, was a very poor way to feed pet cats and dogs. We had been taught that commercial pet food was the ultimate in pet nutrition. I selected the very best brands of commercial pet food, and I looked forward to outstanding fantastic results. How wrong you can be!Over the next four to six months my own animals – who were supremely healthy - began for the first time ever to develop the same range of problems that my clients pets were suffering. However, the sad truth is, I failed to notice. It was only in retrospect that I could put this picture together. It took two years of watching my pets’ health deteriorate before I realized something was wrong. And that realization did not hit me until AFTER I removed the commercial pet food from their life, and witnessed the incredible transformation that occurred.
His first book, "Give Your Dog a Bone: The commonsense practical way to feed your dog for a long, health life," published in 1996 is still among the top-selling pet nutrition books available.
Tom Lonsdale graduated from the Royal Veterinary College, University of London in 1972. After gaining experience in large and small animal practices, including work in zoos, he emigrated to Australia. By the mid 1980s Tom and a group of Sydney based vets began to question the conventional veterinary dogma regarding the feeding of pets.
Subsequently known as the Raw Meaty Bones Lobby, Tom and his colleagues campaigned for change in the way vets are taught and how pets are treated. In 1996, Tom started the Raw Meaty Bones website. In 2001 Tom’s landmark book Raw Meaty Bones: Promote Health (likened to Silent Spring the book that kick started the environmental revolution) was published. In 2005 the easy reader for all pet owners, Work Wonders: Feed your dog raw meaty bones, was published.
Tom now practices at the Bligh Park Pet Health Centre on the outskirts of Sydney.On the other side are the proponents of nutritionally-supplemented, processed pet food. Their thinking goes, we can feed anything so long as it is nutritionally balanced with supplemental vitamins and minerals.
As pet owners, we need to understand that the product that pet-food companies advertise with images of whole chickens, carrots, leafy green vegetables and ripe, juicy fruit is not what they serve.
Animal Planet offers a quick primer on what's really in pet food.
The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) provides special labeling requirements for pet food produced by U.S. manufacturers. While they do not actually regulate the actual production of pet food, their guidelines are updated annually and at the very least provide a good place to start.
AAFCO guidelines require ingredients to be listed in descending order according to the weight of each item added to the mix, so that's a good place to start in terms of determining the quality of the food. Keep in mind though, even when an item such as chicken, cattle, lamb or turkey is listed as the primary ingredient, this can include skeletal muscle, nerves, blood vessels and other parts found within the clean flesh of slaughtered animals. This is where some of the previously mentioned terms such as "100 percent" can be really helpful in terms of clarifying the contents.
What you don't want to see is the pairing of the term "by-product" with any meat or poultry terms, as this refers to cleaned parts such as internal organs, and there's still much debate about exactly what elements go into by-product production. According to the Animal Protection Institute (API), certain pet food companies were accused in the past of including carcasses and road kill in their by-products mix, and some industry insiders reportedly admitted to it. Though today pet companies universally deny such practices, there are no regulations or laws preventing them from doing so.
One ingredient most experts seem to agree on as something to avoid is anything that acts as filler, such as oats, flour, wheat, corn and peanut hulls — all of which have little to no nutritional value. Note: Some manufacturers will break out these types of ingredients into a number of different terms to make it seem like there's less present in the mix, so read carefully. Preservatives — such as BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole, a fat preservative) and Ethoxyquin (a chemical preservative used to prevent spoilage in dog food)— also show up in the pet food manufacturing process, and you should try to steer clear of these as well.So the unregulated pet-food industry purees anything and everything that hits the slaughterhouse floor including wood shavings, dead-pet carcasses and God-knows-what-all, bulks it up with corn, wheat hulls and other fillers, cooks it at extremely high heat, coats it in fat with a heavy dose of chemicals and calls it nutritionally sound.
Imagine you fed your family nothing but sugary cereal, every meal, day in and day out.Cereal manufacturers could argue that supplementation makes this diet complete. Sure you could survive; but would you be healthy?
That's the gist of the controversy between species-appropriate diet and processed pet food, i.e., grain-based kibble.
All I can say is caveat emptor: buyer beware.
There is a good case to be made for the idea that dogs are omnivores - they can survive on pretty much anything. As Marion writes:
When Mal Nesheim and I were writing our book about the pet food industry, Feed Your Pet Right, we were constantly challenged to defend our contention that dogs can eat pretty much anything, including commercial food products made with grains.Now comes a new study published in Nature Magazine supporting the idea that our dogs digestive systems have evolved to better digest carbohydrates:
Our reasoning: dogs are not wolves. They evolved to take full advantage of the leftovers from human food consumption.
The domestication of dogs was an important episode in the development of human civilization. The precise timing and location of this event is debated1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and little is known about the genetic changes that accompanied the transformation of ancient wolves into domestic dogs. Here we conduct whole-genome resequencing of dogs and wolves to identify 3.8 million genetic variants used to identify 36 genomic regions that probably represent targets for selection during dog domestication. Nineteen of these regions contain genes important in brain function, eight of which belong to nervous system development pathways and potentially underlie behavioural changes central to dog domestication6. Ten genes with key roles in starch digestion and fat metabolism also show signals of selection. We identify candidate mutations in key genes and provide functional support for an increased starch digestion in dogs relative to wolves. Our results indicate that novel adaptations allowing the early ancestors of modern dogs to thrive on a diet rich in starch, relative to the carnivorous diet of wolves, constituted a crucial step in the early domestication of dogs.I have huge respect for Marion. She well knows that research findings are often skewed by the people who fund them. So before I swallow this hook, line and sinker, I'd want to discover who paid for this report. For the moment, I'll go along with the argument.
We can assume that wolves were domesticated around campsites and villages of ancient people where they scavenged for food. What kind of carbohydrate scraps might they have been fed?
One of the earliest examples of the incipient dog was discovered in Siberia some 33,000 years ago, pre glacial age. Natural Geographic reports further evidence of the domestication of wolves in Israel some 12,000 years ago.
About 12,000 years ago hunter-gatherers in what is now Israel placed a body in a grave with its hand cradling a pup. Whether it was a dog or a wolf can’t be known. Either way, the burial is among the earliest fossil evidence of the dog’s domestication. Scientists know the process was under way by about 14,000 years ago but do not agree on why. Some argue that humans adopted wolf pups and that natural selection favored those less aggressive and better at begging for food. Others say dogs domesticated themselves by adapting to a new niche—human refuse dumps. Scavenging canids that were less likely to flee from people survived in this niche, and succeeding generations became increasingly tame. According to biologist Raymond Coppinger: “All that was selected for was that one trait—the ability to eat in proximity to people.”
At the molecular level not much changed at all: The DNA makeup of wolves and dogs is almost identical.Note the history of agriculture:
Anthropological and archaeological evidence from sites across Southwest Asia and North Africa indicate use of wild grain (e.g., from the c. 20,000 BCE site of Ohalo II in Israel, many Natufian sites in the Levant and from sites along the Nile in the 10th millennium BCE). There is even evidence of planned cultivation and trait selection: grains of rye with domestic traits have been recovered from Epi-Palaeolithic (10,000+ BCE) contexts at Abu Hureyra in Syria, but this appears to be a localised phenomenon resulting from cultivation of stands of wild rye, rather than a definitive step towards domestication.It's North Africa, people. We're talking hunter-gathering societies.This means meat from large ungulates such as the hartebeest (Alcelaphus buselaphus) and aurochs (Bos primigenius) as well small animals such as rabbit and birds, greens similar to dandelion, seeds, nuts and roots.
Wolf-dogs got the scraps.
This was a diet as richly varied as location and season. It bears no resemblance to the carbohydrate load in the modern diet, especially not the carbohydrate load pets get when they are fed kibble.
Corn - often the first ingredient and the bulk of foods processed for pets was first cultivated in the New World around 9,000 years ago. It was not on the menu.
So which diet is right?
The inclusion of carbohydrates in the form of vegetables and fruit is the primary difference between the Billinghurst and Lonsdale approaches to raw feeding.
We experimented with both.
Oh the irony. All I used my my pricey Cuisinart food processor for at the time was to puree vegetable matter so it was digestible for my dog. Then I mixed it with ground turkey or beef and froze it in cup-sized containers to thaw as needed.
I can personally attest to the many benefits of feeding a dog raw, meaty bones - cleaner teeth, better-smelling breath, improved digestion, little or no flatulence, lean muscle mass and eating with gusto.
Skin issues also typically resolve. In our case, they took a turn for the worse.
It was very discouraging until we got the insight of an experienced raw feeder and subsequently eliminated chicken. Skin issues magically disappeared.
As we worked through the learning curve, with lots of advice from experienced hands, we settled on the prey-model diet suggested by Tom Lonsdale in his diet guide. It does not include vegetables and fruit, but it does not exclude table scraps, which can be almost anything from your own plate with notable exceptions such as cooked bones, onion, garlic and raisins.
Regrettably, I started too late switching Aimee to raw.
Cats are obligate carnivores - strictly meat eaters. Instead, we feed them "nutritionally supplemented" cereal. In the last 30 years, this has had a devastating effect on our feline friends. They routinely suffer from diabetes, urinary tract disease, inflammatory bowel disease, obesity and other health issues that were previously unknown to the species.
For the facts of what to feed cats, I refer you the woman I believe is the foremost authority on this: Lisa Pierson, DVM, for the basics of feline nutrition.
History suggests that what's good for us is also good for our companion animals.
Fresh, natural, local, organic, locally-grown whole food eaten in season seems to be the antidote to many of the health issues of modern life - bad teeth and gums, bad breath, indigestion, inflammatory bowel disease, diabetes, obesity.
The biggest issue is giving up the cheap costs and convenience of processed pet food.
It's worth the work.